The voices of education: Thoughts about life in the classroom

What would surprise the public most about the reality of today’s classroom?

TEACHER 1: I think they’d be most surprised by the range of abilities in the classroom. I teach fifth grade, and there have been years when I had students who read at a second-grade level, and others who read at an 11th-grade level. I think that would be it.

TEACHER 2: Having children on so many different levels in one classroom. You have students with special needs included (which I fully support), but you are not given the proper resources (training, support staff, lower classroom numbers) to help alleviate the demands this places on everyone involved. Besides the students with special needs, you may have sixth-grade students on a second-grade reading level, gifted students, behavior issues and students below the poverty level who all require more from you as an educator. You are not provided the necessary supports to meet everyone’s needs. To top that off, you are not evaluated by how much each student in your class improved during the time they were with you. You are expected to bring them to an age-appropriate “standard,” and when you don’t you are considered a failure.

TEACHER 3: The public would be surprised most by the amount of hours required of a teacher to do his or her job sufficiently. I put in about two hours extra a day most days and a couple hours on the weekend.

What one change in policy or official practice would have the greatest benefit in the classroom?

TEACHER 1: Using scripted programs instead of letting teachers decide how to teach students. Examples? Trophies is a scripted reading program; Vision is a scripted math program. All the material is there for you, including how to teach it. But a program might work well for one student and not very well for another, and teachers should be able to adapt.

TEACHER 2: The one change in policy/practice that could have the greatest benefit would be for schools to be provided more money. I say “could” because if it were used appropriately (quality early-childhood education for every student, proper support for students with special needs, lower class ratio to ensure more individualized attention) it could make all the difference in the world.

TEACHER 3: Lower class sizes.

What aspect of classroom life is most frustrating to you personally?

TEACHER 1: All the paperwork—that’s the most frustrating. Paperwork in the classroom, all the homework we have to assign and all the paperwork I have to turn into the office—basically, anything not related to teaching.

TEACHER 2: The aspect I find most frustrating is the competitive atmosphere that is created due to this push for oftentimes unrealistic academic achievement. It has become a place where children do not want to be. Many students feel like failures no matter how hard they are working. We have lost sight of children; they are now a “test score.” We have lost any chance for helping children develop socially because there is no time. The first things to be taken away are “specials”—art, music, P.E.—and these may be the things that will help a child find their passion in life and give them a reason to want to come to school.

TEACHER 3: Personally, I find it frustrating to be accountable on high-stakes tests for students who are unable to pass due to a learning disability or language issue.

In the last few years, have discipline problems increased, declined or stayed the same? (What’s an example of a typical discipline problem, and how does that impact the learning process for the other kids?)

TEACHER 1: I’d have to say it’s increased. The most typical behavior problem is talking—verbal disruption. If it’s a popular student, all the other students will focus in on him. It’s kids being kids, but it’s also that they’re not engaged. It’s about classroom management.

TEACHER 2: Unfortunately, discipline problems have increased. Parents are busier and have so much going on that good parenting is hard to come by these days. In early childhood we see severe tantrums, but with some consistency from the teacher and with parent training, the behavior improves quickly. For many of the children who are not lucky enough to receive early childhood education, this behavior is seen in the general education classrooms. It is incredibly disruptive to the learning process of the other students, especially since there really is no time to have activities (recess, specific social skills training activities) that are not deemed “academically oriented.” Since the behavior is not addressed, it usually continues throughout the years, oftentimes increasing in severity.

TEACHER 3: Discipline problems seemed to have increased in the past few years. Typical problems are disruption in teaching. When a student disrupts the classroom, then the other students in the room are not able to learn. This disruption can be a simple as chatting to his or her neighbor or more extreme—throwing chairs or tantrums.

In the last few years, have parents gotten better about meeting their responsibilities, worse or stayed the same?

TEACHER 1: I’d say it’s about the same. There are always parents who support everything or are constantly involved. There are others who don’t have a clue about their children’s education. And some want to be there but can’t, because of various obstacles like work or language. But it’s stayed steady at a lower level. And it plays a huge role in class.

You notice students who have a high level of parental involvement. They want to do well, and they hold themselves accountable. Other students go home and there’s no one there to help with their homework or to hold them accountable. You can tell that some of them are sad that they go through the whole day with no one being responsible for them.

TEACHER 2: Most parents are really very busy, but I believe they want to be supportive. They want to be good parents. Many don’t know how and, it is very difficult to meet all of the demands of life today and still have enough left to meet all of the responsibilities of being a parent.

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